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Message in a Bathtub: Does the Death of the Middle Class Spell the End of the American Dream?

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Eighty years ago, installing a bathtub saved two men's lives. And the message they left behind offers important lessons for today.

As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Monday, a Philadelphia Christ Church official searching out a water leak was surprised to discover graffiti, scrawled in pencil on the back of a bathtub:

"Tub set 1-9-33 by Louis J. Volpe. This work kept two men from starving during the Depression."

Far from hyperbole, the communiqué harks back to a time when unemployment raged and breadlines stretched for blocks. Two years before Volpe and his partner installed the tub, two out of five of their fellow Philadelphians were either jobless or struggling to survive on part-time work.

The men's words, which convey gratitude mixed with despair, offer a touching reminder of the simple power that skilled-trades jobs have always had to put food on American tables.

Today fewer Americans may be starving to death than during the Depression, but that doesn't mean U.S. workers aren't struggling to make ends meet. In 2008, nearly 50 million people in this country (more than 16 million of them children) lived in food-insecure households. Without income sufficient to cover basic needs, many families are forced to choose between food and other necessities, such as housing, healthcare, childcare, and transportation. And things are not getting better.

Each year the gap between this country's haves and have-nots continues to grow. In this weekend's Financial Times, Edward Luce picked apart the American Dream, profiling families whose stories paint a portrait of the dying middle class. Among those mentioned were Mark and Connie Freeman. Although their joint gross income of $70,000 is more than a third higher than the U.S. median, the couple says they're "never more than a pay check or two from the streets."

This story is far from unusual. Luce explains how the Great Recession has only exacerbated the country's longstanding "personal recession":

[T]he annual incomes of the bottom 90% of U.S. families have been essentially flat since 1973 -- having risen by only 10% in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1% have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

In other words, the middle class is dying. Michael Snyder offers up 22 shocking stats that demonstrate this economic shift. Here are just a few:
  • 61% of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck -- up from 49% in 2008 and 43% in 2007.
  • 66% of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
  • In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 and 500 to 1.

These figures, coupled with the dire unemployment stats that show few signs of letting up, demonstrate real pain shouldered by millions of Americans. One might think these numbers would provide all the ammo necessary for the nation's leaders to step up and make big changes, but economists like Paul Krugman express that they have yet to hear a convincing battle cry from among the ranks.

On Sunday Krugman expressed his fear that economists and the country's lawmakers will declare unemployment a "structural" problem and "a permanent part of the economic landscape" rather than addressing joblessness head-on.

Luce confirms that fear, pointing out how "structural" scapegoating is already underway. What's worse, he continues, "is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: Declining income mobility."

As company profits and executive salaries reflect the corporate benefits of a global economy that provides seemingly endless access to cheap labor, increasing numbers of the United States' own workers are left ever more vulnerable to the real-life implications of economic inequality. "In today's America," explains Luce, "if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe." So much for the American Dream.

But here's the good news: Common ground among strange bedfellows.

These days people from across the political spectrum are rallying around a shared goal: They want their country back. The "Who killed the American Dream?" banners at progressive marches parallel the "Take America back" signs at Tea Party rallies. And though they may not agree on exactly how to get it back, liberals, conservatives, independents, and all those in between are speaking out, and challenging the nation's leaders to act.

As always, it's up to each of us to make the change that we are waiting for. Let's urge our government to put less effort into protecting the interests of the richest 1% of the population and more energy into devising ways for workers like Volpe, the tub-setting plumber, to bring their skilled hands to the jobs that can put food on the table, and fend off the specter of economic inequality.